Photo by Lee Gumbs, courtesy Taja Riley

Taja Riley Writes a Letter to Her Teenage Self

Taja Riley's bold, full-out presence and unique ability to mix hard-hitting hip hop with smooth, sensual choreography paved the way for her success in the commercial industry. She's danced with music icons like Chris Brown, Janet Jackson, Ne-Yo, Kanye West, 50 Cent, Pitbull, and Bruno Mars, and has assisted with choreography for Britney Spears' Femme Fatale tour, Demi Lovato's Skyscraper tour, and Beyoncé's Mrs. Carter tour. She also appeared in Beyoncé's groundbreaking visual album Lemonade. Raised in Virginia Beach, VA, Riley grew up training at Denise Wall's Dance Energy. Currently, she's on faculty at New York City Dance Alliance, where you can catch her touring the convention circuit. —Courtney Bowers

Dear Taja,

Baby girl, trust me, you're going to do great things, but I need you to get a few things straight.

First of all, dance is not your life! Even though it's something you're truly passionate about, it doesn't define you as a human being. YOU ARE UNLIMITED.

Don't let anyone tell you that you're not capable of becoming a legend. If you want to be legendary in every aspect of your life, know that what you're asking for comes with great responsibility, and requires selflessness and resistance. You'll be punched, kicked, wounded, knocked down, but get up fast and show them your grills. Pain is so much fun when you stop recognizing it as pain and start recognizing it as growth.

Riley (second from right) as a student (courtesy Riley)

Place your values over convenience when you make choices. Your biggest dreams are your most prized possessions. Treat them like you would your favorite pet. Feed them every day. Spoil them by giving them your focus and attention with every decision you make.

Never stop being a student. Recognize every moment as a lesson, every experience as a school, and every connection you make as homework to better yourself.

You'll be placed underneath a magnifying glass, and some people will be ready to examine your flaws. Blind them with your radiance. If they try to cut you down, that'll only make you a more expensive diamond.

If you're the smartest person in the room, leave immediately. You're in the wrong room. The five main people you spend the most time with will be a visual of your next five years.

Riley as a young dancer (courtesy Riley)

Under no circumstances are you to ever quit on yourself. EVER. This life that you're living isn't just about you, it's about all of the things you hold most dear, so stay the course.

You're so fly. Greet every day with open arms, like expanded wings. I guarantee you'll stay in the air. Don't confuse this for being above anyone or anything, though—yo' butt is on the ground and needs to stay there.

Hug the fam. Plant the seeds. Tend to your garden and bloom, you hippie child.


(and I'll be waiting with some Chick-fil-A and "Got to Give It Up" on repeat!)

Taja Riley

Latest Posts

Project 21 dancers (from left) Selena Hamilton, Gracyn French, and Dyllan Blackburn (Photo by Quinn Wharton; hair and makeup throughout by Angela Huff for Mark Edward Inc.)

How Project 21 Is Shaping the Next Generation of Competition-Dance Standouts

"I wish I had a better story about the name," says Molly Long, founder of the Orange County, CA–based dance studio Project 21. In truth, it's a play on the fact that she was born on the twenty-first of August, and 21 is her favorite number. "I was away on a teaching tour, the audition announcement was going live on Instagram the next day, and I desperately needed a name. Project 21 was just the least cheesy of the options I thought of!"

The fact that fans might expect the name to have some profound meaning speaks to the near-mythic status Project 21 has achieved on the competition and convention scene since its founding in 2014. Long's dancers are all wholly individual, yet jell seamlessly as a group, and are consistently snagging top prizes everywhere on the circuit. Each season brings a slew of new accolades, high-caliber faculty, and legions of devoted followers.

The industry has taken notice of the studio's unique ethos. "Molly gets through to her dancers in a special way, and they have this incomparable level of commitment to their craft as a result," says dancer and choreographer Billy Bell, who's worked closely with Long and her dancers. "That's what sets them apart—it's like a little dose of magic."

Keep Reading SHOW LESS

Dear Katie: What Can I Do to Get More Flexible?

In our "Dear Katie" series, Miami City Ballet soloist Kathryn Morgan answers your pressing dance questions. Have something you want to ask Katie? Email for a chance to be featured!

Dear Katie,

I'm a strong dancer, but I don't have a lot of flexibility. I stretch every day, but it feels like I'm getting nowhere. What can I do to get more flexible?


Keep Reading SHOW LESS

Editors' Picks

Enter the Cover Model Search